I was trying not to be in the lockdown,” rapper Stefflon Don tells me, running a multicoloured claw through back-length, honey-blonde extensions. “Hell no!” When we speak via Zoom in mid-November, Don is in Ghana, where she has flown to escape London, with her mother, son and a close friend in tow. Despite it being a trip for pleasure, she has a studio session booked that evening. “No matter where I go, I’m always gonna work,” she tells me.
This nonstop grind has paid dividends. Stephanie Victoria Allen, 28, known to friends and fans as Steff, is one of Britain’s biggest exports, according to the all- important stats: 5.78bn streams globally, 2.3bn streams on Apple Music alone, 444m views on Vevo, 1.2m subscribers on YouTube. But mainstream recognition eludes her in the UK, particularly when compared to some of her less commercially successful male counterparts.
Don arrived on the music scene in 2016 with a debut mix-tape, Real Ting. Here was an artist who had swerved the grittiness associated with British rap. Twelve months later, she was longlisted in the BBC’s newcomer poll, Sound of 2017. Four months later she signed a £1.2m deal with Universal, and her breakout single, Hurtin’ Me, featuring US rapper French Montana, reached number seven in the UK singles chart. She’s been on an upward trajectory ever since. She’s won Mobo awards. She’s worked with Nile Rodgers, Drake and Mariah Carey. In 2018 she became the first British artist ever to make legendary US hip-hop magazine XXL’s annual Freshman List.
Don was born in Birmingham to Jamaican parents. She moved to the Netherlands when she was five and returned to the UK at 14. In Holland, she grew up among the immigrant communities of Rotterdam – people from Suriname, Curaçao, Portugal. She recalls it being “just like London” in terms of diversity, but she didn’t come across many other Jamaicans until she arrived back in England. “People [in Rotterdam] didn’t even know what Jamaica was,” she laughs. “So I used to say, ‘Do you know Sean Paul?’ If it wasn’t for him, people wouldn’t have known where the fuck I’m from!”
Her discography draws on dancehall, grime, R&B and, culturally, any country’s inspired by. Though she is often described as a British artist, she says, “I’ve never felt like a UK artist. I was around so many different people from different backgrounds, different countries. I feel I’m a part of so much more. That’s why I’m never scared to try things.”
In her latest single, Can’t Let You Go, Don slips between patois and the Nigerian dialect, Yoruba. When she was putting the song together, her Nigerian producer mistakenly thought she’d said something in the language, and encouraged her to carry on, which left her uncharacteristically coy. Given the mixed response to Beyoncé’s Black is King album – rapper Noname panned the album’s visuals as “an African aesthetic draped in capitalism” – Don expected a backlash. The song was met with praise, but the concept of cultural appropriation is generally one that she isn’t entirely convinced by. Take the summer furore over Adele’s now infamous Instagram post, showing her wearing Bantu knots and a Jamaican flag bikini top to mark what would have been Notting Hill carnival. Steff shakes her head at the culture vulture accusations.
“The people who were complaining weren’t Jamaicans,” she says, with a shrug. “To us we just see it as love. Even that Chet Hanks guy [actor Tom Hanks’ son, who has repeatedly gone viral for videos speaking with a Jamaican accent]. We’ll just laugh. We would never call it “cultural appropriation”. We never use that term. Because when you think about it, the whole music scene has a Jamaican influence. Jamaican people know that they are creators and inventors of a lot of things.”
When I meet her on Zoom, Don is undoubtedly glamorous and confident, but it wasn’t always so. She was an outcast when she first arrived in Clapton, east London, in 2006. She was sporting a nose piercing and lower back tattoo, body modification being less of a big deal in Rotterdam schools. “My dress sense was fucked,” she laughs. “So when I came, they were looking at me like, ‘What’s going on for this chick, fam? What kind of shoes? What is this jacket? What hairstyle? And I’m just like, ‘I’m a kid!’”
Don’s distinct accent also set her apart. “I had an American, Jamaican, weird, fucked accent. I remember when I had a boyfriend he would be like, ‘Talk to my friends! Listen to her accent, listen to how she sounds, it’s mad!’”
It was around this time she began taking music seriously. She was raised in a musical family – her mother sang in choirs, her dad dabbled in music, her brother is the drill artist Dutchavelli, who has recently faced serious accusations. After his Instagram account was allegedly hacked a few weeks ago, inappropriate messages leaked which appeared to be between him and his late manager’s teenage niece. Dutchavelli has since said they were edited by hackers and both he and the girl’s mother have denied the allegations.
Don was “that kid” in primary school, rounding up reluctant friends to perform Destiny’s Child routines at talent shows. “I would write down what I thought were the lyrics and drag them along,” she giggles. After encouraging her to start singing, her dad landed her first gig, aged nine, recording an unreleased version of the Hard Knock Life hook for Dutch rapper U-Niq. But she knew singing wasn’t quite right for her back then, and says she was “tired of the embarrassment, tired of being shy”.
Don was encouraged by her sister to try rapping instead, at 15. “When I started rapping, I was like: this is it. This matches really who I am. The confidence.”
Throughout our interview, Don repeatedly refers to her confidence and her “realness”, as most rappers do. But in her case, her lack of filter is undeniable. She speaks wholly from a stream of consciousness, briefly acknowledging that what she has said will probably elicit a reaction and then saying it anyway. This has, of course, several times landed her in hot water. Last year, while promoting a new single, she staged her own arrest at the hands of a white police officer and published images of the fake event on social media. In an Instagram caption, she wrote: “Bloodclaat mi a get locked up Black Lives Matter,” and added a laughing face emoji. The post was criticised by fans for being insensitive and was later deleted.
Then, there were the tweets of hers that resurfaced in 2018, insulting darker-skinned women, an issue she raises before I do, the elephant on the Zoom. In 2013 she tweeted about “dark-skinned” women “hating on light-skinned” women, adding: “Don’t act like if God gave you a chance you wouldn’t change your colour.” She has since apologised, but the “colourist” label has proven difficult to shake.
“I understand everyone’s frustration with me,” she says. “And I know how bad that tweet looks, like I’m another person adding to all the fucked-up shit that everyone says…But I was thinking rah, I’m not even this person that you’re trying to say I am. How could I not like someone because of the colour of their skin? A racist person is an evil person and that would be the same thing for a colourist.”
She adds that while she understands the comparative privilege she has as a light-skinned black woman, the concept of colourism was not one she grew up with. “In Holland, if you’re black, you’re black,” she says. “If you’re white, you’re white. It was never shades: never a light-skinned, dark-skinned thing. I never learned that until I came to England, where I would get into an argument at school and girls would be like, “You think you’re nice cos you’re light-skinned.” And I’d think, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’”
Over the past few years, several musicians, media personalities and influencers have had old tweets unearthed expressing similar, offensive views. Many have been able to move on from their comments, but for Don, it is still something that crops up frequently on social media. These days, she says tends to clapback less (“There’s a lot of times I write stuff and I’ll hit the backspace real quick,” she says), but she believes it is getting more toxic. Instagram’s decision to add the feature of liking comments, she says, has encouraged more online maliciousness, as the meanest comments are often upvoted. The site invited her into their offices for a meeting to address the issue of trolling, which she dubbed a “waste of her time”.
Don’s demeanour softens when she discusses her son, who is 10, and who she had, unplanned, at 17. His father was in prison at the time, making an already challenging situation more difficult. “I was actually thinking about having an abortion,” she says. “I had appointments to do it and so many things kept happening to not make me do it.” It crossed her mind how having a child might affect her career. But she feels her success has been because of her son not in spite of him. “He has made me who I am today,” she says. “He helped me stay away from a lot of nonsense, when it comes to boys. I hold myself so high because I’m a mother. There’s a lot of things I wouldn’t stand for and places I didn’t want to be because I’m a mum.”
Family is clearly a priority. Don has bought a large house in Essex: 10 bedrooms, a designer wardrobe and a swimming pool. She lives there with various family members, including her brothers, sisters, mum and her son, as well as nieces who are around so much, she says, that they may as well live there full-time. I tell her this is something I’ve always wanted to do. “You say that until it happens!” she cackles. “Then it’s like, ‘Fucking hell!’ When I was younger, I had to look after my little brothers and sisters, I had to take them to school, I had to cook dinner. Even now I’m like the second mum. My little sister just turned 18; she doesn’t do anything without asking me. So when I’m doing something I always bring my family along. But I’m thinking about it now, though, because I’m tired of them,” she jokes.
The main source of fatigue? Being a critically acclaimed artist who still has to pick up after her siblings. It’s her only bugbear, but she balks at any suggestion she get a cleaner. “I’ve got how many people in here that don’t do nothing?” she says. “No. In my house you have to clean every day.”
As female rappers stateside continue to climb the charts – Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, City Girls – Britain is still at least a decade behind, with a solitary “Queen B” spot that Don is keenly aware she holds. “In the UK, a lot of people are very much on the same level. There’s not many people who are so far to reach. I’m one of the only female rappers that is like that, so you won’t really see a lot of the female rappers fucking with me, because they feel I’m so far gone.”
While she applauds more women on the scene, she worries about the sustainability of the current model, what she refers to as a “trend” of influencers-turned-rappers. It is a common trajectory for many musicians, especially female rappers and is achieved with varying degrees of success. One managing to make the transition is self-styled Queen of Drill Ivorian Doll, who Don says she reached out to after she spoke about her struggles navigating the industry.
“I had to message her like, hey, you’re doing good, everyone loves what you’re doing – carry on,” she explains. “But that’s somebody that probably didn’t grow up wanting to do music and now it’s like, ‘Rah, I didn’t know this is what it comes with.’”
There is still some way to go, Don says, until we see the same camaraderie that we do among male artists. “Women naturally have beef with each other,” she says – something she feels mainly comes down to “boys”. “We just see other women as threats; we compete with how we look, we compete with our careers. The relationship I’m in now, he makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the room; that’s why probably I’m way more relaxed and way more cool with everyone.”
The man in question is Grammy-nominated musician Burna Boy, who she met in Ghana two years ago, by chance. She attended his show after missing a flight and he told her she was going to be his wife. This week, however, the couple have been facing infidelity rumours, with Burna Boy being accused of having a two-year relationship with another woman. Both are yet to comment on the allegations.
The trip to Africa was the beginning of a different love story altogether, with the country Ghana itself, which she visited for the first time two years ago, after she was invited by Afrobeats artist Fuse ODG.
“As soon as I got here I just felt at home,” she says. “It’s weird, but you get a feeling. I’ve never felt it anywhere else, but it’s that feeling of, ‘Oh, I belong somewhere.’
People don’t realise that in western countries where people be like, ‘freedom’, it is not freedom. You’re trapped,” she adds. “Freedom is where you can walk and feel like no one would harm you… I’m not saying there’s no crime in Ghana, but I fell in love with it.”
On this trip, she has been visiting a primary school that she, Fuse ODG, Ghanaian comedian Michael Blackson and activist Chaka Bars are building in Akosombo, which will partially be used as an orphanage. “What’s his name has also been part of this… What’s that ginger guy’s name again? Ginger hair.” Ed Sheeran? I offer. She nods. “I always forget his name!”
Stefflon Don’s standoffish reputation precedes her, so I wasn’t sure who I was going to meet. Her honesty was refreshing, however, and something many media-trained musicians could perhaps take note of. “When you’re a real person and you have an opinion, it’s hard to play fake,” she says. “What I’m realising is, you should get your money, get your shit together and when you’re at the top, say what you want”.
Stefflon Don’s single Can’t Let You Go is out now
Fashion editor Jo Jones; hair and wig by Snobbstylist; makeup by Summar Hunjan; shot at Big Sky studio; fashion assistant Peter Bevan